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Wes's Picks



 
Book Cover for Let the Right One In Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Fiction
Lindqvist’s debut novel Let the Right One In was made into a movie of the same name that is now a cult horror phenomenon. This is an instance, however, where the book is far superior to the movie. Both contain the same general plot: a bullied human boy and a misfit vampire girl meet and become best friends amidst the dusky ambience of snowy Sweden. The friendship inspires courage in the boy, and invokes the girl's lost humanity. But while the movie does an adequate job of recreating the gore and bleak feel of the novel, it never reproduces the emotions invoked by the book’s telling of the children’s transcendent relationship. Worse, the movie unacceptably leaves out major climactic events described in the book. So skip the movie and read the book. It masterfully redefines the vampire genre for the 21st century while being one of the best vampire stories ever written.
Recommended January 2011

 
Book Cover for No Doors, No Windows Schreiber, Joe
No Doors, No Windows

Horror
An above average haunted house story about a Seattle writer who returns home to New Hampshire for his father’s funeral, only to discover lingering family mysteries begging to be solved. The prime mystery is that of Round House, an odd house in the middle of the woods designed without interior edges: all the corners of the rooms have been sanded into smooth curves. When our protagonist discovers that his father was writing a story about the house, he takes an interest, too, and picks up the story where his father left off. Soon the storytelling reveals terrible secrets about murdered girls, vengeful warlocks, and family curses that ultimately lead to a terrifying climax within Round House’s creepy walls. Fans of Mark Danielewski’s cult classic House of Leaves will appreciate its obvious influence on Schreiber’s page-turner plot.
Recommended September 2010

 
Book Cover for The Rational Optimist Ridley, Matt
The Rational Optimist

Nonfiction
Being a big fan of Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue, I was excited to get my hands on his latest book, The Rational Optimist. Though not quite as hard-hitting as his previous work, it’s filled with interesting insights that lend themselves to a more optimistic view of the world. Ridley’s central thesis is that humans trading with each other led to the evolution of prosperity that many of us enjoy today, and that continued trade will continue to improve the state of the world. Indeed, humans are the only species that trades with strangers, and in doing so we reduce our workload and expand our gain. Historically, Ridley argues, it’s been the power-hungriness of politicians and priesthoods that have stymied trade and human prosperity. But fear not, Ridley is not an off-the-tracks libertarian: he backs his statements up with historical facts and data. If there’s one thing about the book I dislike, it’s that Ridley sometimes glosses over human atrocities with a simple “but, it’s getting better.” Still, the logical and empirical support for his main argument leads me to conclude that, for the most part, we have a lot to be optimistic about.
Recommended July 2010

 
Book Cover for Chasing Spring Stutz, Bruce
Chasing Spring

Nonfiction
Shortly after undergoing heart surgery to repair a damaged valve, Bruce Stutz hopped in a 1984 Chevy Impala lovingly called Moby Dick and began a cross-country tour to follow spring as it emerged throughout the country. Part of his trip was scientific: Stutz visited numerous scientists and conservationists across the country to learn about the effect global warming is having on spring. He troublingly learns that spring is arriving earlier each year, resulting in altered migration patterns for animals, melting glaciers, and destroyed ecosystems. The other part of Stutz’s trip was personal, and he waxes poetically about the importance of spring as a shared human cultural experience steeped in mythology and symbolism. But as spring changes, our culture is not keeping up, and Stutz laments that people are losing out on an opportunity to experience a human tradition that may not be with us much longer. Chasing Spring is an enlightening treat for fans of travelogues and popular science books.
Recommended June 2010

 
Book Cover for Seven Deadly Pleasures Aronovitz, Michael
Seven Deadly Pleasures

Horror
I spent a good part of the day yesterday experiencing a feeling of dread. The reason? I'd read a novella called “Toll Booth,” the final tale in a collection of short horror stories, Seven Deadly Pleasures by Michael Aronovitz. A Pennsylvania native, Aronovitz practices his craft in the Philadelphia area when he's not teaching English literature at a charter high school. That said, it’s clear that Aronovitz follows the mantra “write what you know.” He tells of horrors in contemporary life, in everyday locales like schools, alongside highways, or inside your own home, and Pennsylvania often fits into the equation. While not all equally scary, the stories all display a literary quality beyond average horror writing, with characters and locations so vivid you are instantly pulled in. But be warned, these are not light-hearted gorefests or ghost stories. While some gore and supernatural elements are part of Aronovitz’s repertoire of scares, they are secondary to the emotional traumas he inflicts on his characters, and you will feel every bit of emotional agony that they do. Any fan of classic Stephen King and Clive Barker or old school horror television shows like "Night Gallery" and "Tales from the Darkside" will find a lot to like in this book.
Recommended April 2010

 
Book Cover for The Mating Mind Miller, Geoffrey
The Mating Mind

Nonfiction
The origins of the human mind’s varied features is a hotly debated topic amongst philosophers, psychologists, and social scientists. Why do people like art, literature, music, and poetry? Why do we crack jokes, or for that matter laugh at them? What are the origins of language? For Geoffrey Miller the answer to these questions, and many others like them, is that the human mind is an evolved product of a process Charles Darwin called sexual selection. You may already be familiar with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which explains that organisms evolve as traits that aid in survival are passed on to successive generations. Sexual selection works in a similar way, except that traits that aid in attracting mates are passed on to successive generations. In other words, rather than an organism’s natural environment selecting for traits, the organism’s potential mates do. Applied to humans, this means that everyone alive today is partly the product of our ancestors’ preferences in what they found attractive in sexual partners. While this certainly applies to bodily traits, Miller argues that it also applies to the human mind. Thus, for Miller, our artistic tastes, sense of humor, propensity for language, and even our sense of right and wrong survive today simply because our ancestors preferred mates who displayed these traits. Miller’s argument is eye-opening to say the least, and his laid back, often humorous writing style makes this book an enjoyable read. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in popular science topics or human evolution.
Recommended January 2010

 
Book Cover for The Red Tree Kiernan, Caitlin
The Red Tree

Horror
Don’t judge this book by its cheesy cover: The Red Tree is one of the best pieces of supernatural suspense horror you’ll ever read. Its premise is classically Lovecraftian. Girl moves into creepy old house in New England; girl finds crumbling manuscript that describes something fantastically evil; girl faces the evil and slowly loses her mind. Despite the modern setting in which the story takes place, Kiernan does a perfect job of channeling the timeless terrors evoked by the old school elite of horror writing. Nightmares that are more ethereal than in-your-face haunt the pages of The Red Tree in dark, cavernous basements and haunted forests, and ultimately it’s the horror of the unknown that gives the book its power to scare. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, and Arthur Machen should not hesitate to give The Red Tree a try.
Recommended November 2009

 
Book Cover for The Walking Dead Kirkman, Robert
The Walking Dead

Graphic Novel
As a long-time fan of zombie horror, it’s strange that I’ve only just begun to read the amazing zombie-filled graphic novel series, The Walking Dead. Each book in the series is a collected volume of previously published comic books that began their run in 2003. Up to the ninth volume with a tenth on the way, the series, like the monsters it portrays, keeps on coming with no end in sight. This is fine by me. I’ve read the first three volumes, and it just keeps getting better. Kirkman’s series is true George Romero style zombie survival horror. In similar fashion to Romero’s famous films, the living dead stalking the human survivors are a constant threat, but the real horror and drama come from the survivors’ all-too-human relationships. As alliances break down and bodies pile up, one begins to realize that “the walking dead” are less the zombies than they are the zombies’ inevitable victims. For fans of zombie horror, I can’t recommend this series enough. Don’t make the mistake I did by putting this one off – start reading it now!
Recommended July 2009

 
Book Cover for Game of Thrones Martin, George R. R.
A Game of Thrones

Science Fiction
If you are the least bit interested in the fantasy genre but have yet to read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, stop reading this review right now, grab a copy of the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, and start reading. For those who don’t usually dabble in fantasy, I still say give it a shot, as Martin’s saga doesn’t rely on the stereotypical swords and sorcery plot that might turn off the fantasy neophyte. While A Game of Thrones does introduce the reader to a medieval world populated with knights, kings and queens, and yes, dragons, it emphasizes plot-twisting political intrigue and not the banal good vs. evil imagery of your standard fantasy tale. Martin’s characters are also written in this vein – the real strength of the series – and so are not easily categorized. Thus, a “bad guy” character that you hate in A Game of Thrones may become one of your favorites later on, though you shouldn’t expect Martin to keep many of the characters alive for very long! In this regard it’s easy to compare A Song of Ice and Fire to HBO’s television series The Wire, and in fact HBO is planning a televised version of Martin’s entire saga, slated to begin with a pilot episode based on A Game of Thrones. But don’t wait for the television version, read this now!
Recommended June 2009

 
Book Cover for Night Voices, Night Journeys edited by Ken, Asamatsu
Lairs of the Hidden Gods

Horror
The tentacled horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos extend their slimy reach to the minds of people all over the world, as demonstrated by an intriguing new four-volume series, Lairs of the Hidden Gods. Each volume of Lairs is an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired short stories written by Japanese authors. The first, Night Voices, Night Journeys, is the only volume I’ve read thus far, but the quality bodes well for the rest of the series. There’s a mix of scenarios for everyone here: prohibition-era Chicago gangster noir with an occult twist; seemingly delicious sea cucumbers with bat wings in the service of Shub Niggurath; evil daggers used in grotesque ways reminiscent of gory Japanese horror films; and more. Robert Price, a religion scholar steeped in Lovecraft’s mythos, provides an interesting introduction to the book, while editor Asamatsu Ken offers thoughtful commentary on each story. For fans of pulp fiction and H.P. Lovecraft, there’s certainly a lot here to sink your teeth into (though I wouldn’t recommend doing this to the bat-winged sea cucumbers).
Recommended April 2009

 
Book Cover for Life of Pi Martel, Yann
Life of Pi

Fiction
Life of Pi is my default book recommendation for someone looking for “something good to read.” It’s the story of an Indian boy named Piscine, or Pi for short, who’s moving from India to Canada with his parents and the family zoo. That’s right, zoo – Pi’s family owns a large zoo in India, but for political reasons decide to move themselves and the zoo to Canada. To do so they must pack the zoo onto a huge ocean liner, which sinks. Pi survives but is stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat. And he’s not alone: some zoo animals survive the shipwreck and hop aboard Pi’s lifeboat, including a fearsome Bengal tiger. Most of the story centers around Pi’s adventure on the open sea with his unwanted companion, and it’s a truly page-turning ordeal. But there are other interesting elements in the story too, such as its underlying religious theme. The novel’s prologue presents Pi’s adventure as true, and claims it as a “story that will make you believe in God.” This little detail is easily forgotten until the conclusion, when an incredible twist brings it back to the fore in a “whoa” kind of moment. Life of Pi is crosslisted under adult and young adult fiction, and it’s a survival adventure classic with a philosophical edge that I will recommend to people of all ages for many years to come.
Recommended March 2009

 
Vinge, Vernor
A Fire Upon the Deep

Science Fiction
There’s science fiction, and then there’s SCIENCE FICTION. Vernor Vinge’s Hugo Award winning A Fire Upon the Deep is definitely the latter. A Fire Upon the Deep takes the reader thousands of years into the future to a point in time when Earth, or “Old Earth” as it is referred to, is just a legend. This distant vision of the future imagines a Milky Way Galaxy populated with thousands of alien species living in various “zones of thought.” These zones of thought influence the developmental capacity of civilizations and technologies. At the very bottom of the zones is the Slowness, where most civilizations have barely surpassed the stage of feudalism. Old Earth, for instance, resides somewhere in the Slowness. Many species, including humans, have escaped the Slowness and have founded civilizations in the Low, Middle, and High Beyond, where powerful technology allows for complex trade networking. (Vinge’s description of the networking is clearly strongly inspired by computer networking, which makes sense because Vinge is a former computer scientist.) Above the Slowness and the Beyond is the Transcend, where some individuals, called Powers, have achieved godlike technological abilities that have a significant impact on those in the lower levels. With all of that now explained, A Fire Upon the Deep is about a malevolent Power that is accidentally created and begins wreaking havoc on the civilizations within the Beyond. A human spaceship carrying the secret to destroying the Power escapes the devastation and becomes stranded on a planet in the Low Beyond populated by a wolf-like species that communicates with a group mind. Two child survivors from the ship, a brother and sister, become separated and enmeshed in a bloody war between rival factions of the wolf-like creatures. In the High Beyond, a rescue group of four individuals, two human and two tree-like aliens that ride in automated carts, set off for the Low Beyond to save the children and retrieve the secret of the ship, but face their own challenges as they attempt to traverse thousands of light years of space while being stalked by the malevolent Power. And this summary just scratches the surface. A Fire Upon the Deep is truly SCIENCE FICTION.
Recommended February 2009

 
Ridley, Matt
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation

Nonfiction
What are the origins of human morality? If your first answer is religion, think again. While it cannot be denied that the moral systems of the world’s great monotheistic religions have a strong influence on us today, these moral systems have only existed for several thousand years. For millions of years prior, humans and our hominid ancestors lived in social groups that required moral behavior without the mediation of powerful religious institutions. Hence, contemporary research in human evolutionary studies is asking what evolutionary pressures led humans to behave morally. Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue is a brilliant delineation of the developments in this field of research. Limited space prevents me from discussing every excellent detail of the book, but its basic conclusion is this: human morality is the result of the evolutionary pressures of group living. In other words, the features of morality that we take for granted, such as empathy for others, cooperation, sharing, and a sense of justice, are the hardwired products of millions of years of biological evolution that emerged as our hominid ancestors turned to sociality for survival purposes. The fascinating implication of this is that mandated morality by governments or religious institutions is unnecessary, and usually does more harm than good. With that said, besides being a tour de force of contemporary science writing, The Origins of Virtue is also a compelling argument for the libertarian political tradition.
Recommended January 2009

 
Book Cover for The Other Guterson, David
The Other

Fiction
The Other did not receive the critical acclaim of David Guterson’s first and most famous novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, but it is an excellent story nonetheless. The Other is about the friendship between level-headed, working class Neil Countryman and eccentric, trust funded John William Barry, who decides to leave behind the world of brilliantly portrayed 1970s Seattle and become a hermit in the Hoh Rain Forest. Countryman devotedly helps Barry survive in his hermitage, until disaster strikes and Countryman finds himself the heir to his friend’s 400 million dollar fortune. No spoilers here; you learn all of this in the first few pages of the book. Most of the story afterward is an examination of John William Barry’s motivations behind his withdrawal from society, and Neil Countryman’s meditations on choosing the “other,” mainstream path through life. The story is interspersed with beautiful scenes of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, which lives and breathes in Guterson’s prose. Otherwise, the novel is less about wilderness adventure and more about discussions of philosophy, theology, and literature, which may wear on some readers. If, however, you are a fan of philosophical, soul-searching novels that take place in beautiful settings, The Other will not disappoint.
Recommended December 2008

 
Book Cover for Storm Front: Book 1 of The Dresden Files Butcher, Jim
Storm Front: Book 1 of The Dresden Files

Science Fiction
The first book of The Dresden Files introduces the series' protagonist, the modern day magic-slinging, duster-wearing Harry Dresden, and his antics as a wizard-for-hire in Chicago. In Storm Front, Harry faces a mysterious black magic-wielding foe who’s been murdering people in gruesome ways. Harry must use his magic and his wits to track down the evil wizard before he becomes the next victim, all while dealing with the Chicago Police Department, a mobster, a bordello owning vampiress, and an angry group of wizards who blame Harry for the murders. Frankly, the book can be a little cheesy (as can Harry himself, offering lines like "I adore children. A little salt, a squeeze of lemon--perfect"), and it doesn't offer a lot in terms of a complex story or shocking plot twists. Despite this, it’s a fun read that is a good distraction while you’re deciding on which mind-expanding novel to read next. This is Jim Butcher's first book, and I suspect that The Dresden Files have gotten better as he's written them. After all, if Storm Front offers anything, it's the potential for bigger and better things for Harry Dresden and his adventures.
Recommended November 2008

 
Laxness, Halldor
World Light

Fiction
World Light came to me as a recommendation because of my interest in Hermann Hesse, and reading it was a truly revelatory experience. First, because it is an amazingly beautiful story, and second, because it was a great introduction to the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. Like Hesse, Laxness is not afraid to explore the very heart of the human spiritual condition, and both are great at exploring this condition from the perspective of individuals who find themselves standing apart from the rest of society. World Light introduces us to Olafur Karason, a hapless boy who is orphaned and then fostered by Icelandic peasants. At a very young age Olafur physically experiences the beauty of the world, the “world light” of the title, in something akin to spiritual revelations. Olafur’s ability to experience the world in this way gives him a unique vision that sets him apart from others, for better or worse, and he dreams of one day becoming a famous poet. Unfortunately, Olafur’s dream is often met with the brute force of lesser individuals, such as when his foster brothers beat him until he is physically incapacitated and bedridden. On the other hand, some are drawn to Olafur’s poetic worldview, such as the strange mystic who heals Olafur and rescues him from his foster home. Either way, Olafur always seems to be the prisoner of other people’s whims, which ultimately drives him into a life of poverty and, eventually, scandal, while never finding the greatness he longs for. Despite this, to the very end he remains inspired by the beauty he sees in the world around him. And it’s this theme that makes World Light so wonderful. At times the book is brutal, bizarre, and slow, but by the end everything clicks, and you are rewarded with the insight that “beauty shall reign alone.”
Recommended October 2008

 
Book Cover for Proust and the Squid Wolf, Maryanne
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

Nonfiction
We take reading for granted; it probably feels totally natural to read this sentence without a second thought of why you are able to do so. But did you know that alphabets and our ability to read them are only a few thousand years old, and that some of the greatest thinkers in history, such as Socrates, feared the influence reading would have on the mind and society? These are some of the topics Maryanne Wolf discusses in her excellent book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Maryanne Wolf is a neuropsychologist who studies reading development in children. Her research eventually led her to study the history of reading and the ways in which reading influences the development of the brain. In one of the more fascinating parts of her book, Wolf discusses the fact that reading actually changes what parts of the brain we use, and that the parts used vary depending on which alphabet is being read. (Someone reading Japanese, for instance, would use different parts of the brain than someone reading English.) Wolf also spends a good deal of time discussing reading development in children, including reasons why reading fails to develop properly, particularly in cases of dyslexia. Wolf offers an especially interesting discussion here, mentioning at one point that dyslexia is strongly related to high activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, and that a surprising number of creative thinkers throughout history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, were dyslexic. At times Wolf can be heavy-handed with her use of technical jargon, which might slow you down a little. Despite this, Proust and the Squid is overall a fascinating read, and should interest anyone curious about the history and importance of reading. I also highly recommend it to anyone interested in reading development in children, as there are a few golden facts presented that are as useful to know as they are intriguing.
Recommended September 2008

 
Book Cover for Straight Man Russo, Richard
Straight Man

Fiction
Discovering a new author is exciting. Recently, I discovered Richard Russo, whose name you may recognize from his Pulitzer Prize winning book (and subsequent HBO miniseries), Empire Falls. My first Russo book wasn't the prize winner, however, but a slightly earlier work called Straight Man. Straight Man is the story of William Henry Devereaux Jr., the aging chair of a quarrelsome English department in a mediocre small-town college in, of all places, Pennsylvania. Devereaux's approach to life is "don't take things too seriously." When Devereaux applies this approach to administrative funding cuts, the possibility of being ousted from his job by embittered colleagues, and the indifference of his family, hilarious situations ensue one after the other. Honestly, I think this is the funniest piece of fiction I have ever read. Straight Man isn't all laughs, though, and in the end it turns out to be pretty heartwarming. Throughout the story there is serious soul searching on Devereaux's part as he reflects on missed opportunities and wonders how he got to where he is. His conclusion is not bitterness, however, but rather a kind of grateful submission to life's vagaries that comes from his refusal to stop seeing the joke in everything. Overall, Straight Man is a good introduction to Richard Russo's writing and his favorite themes, such as small-town life and missed opportunities. Straight Man is also absolutely required reading for anyone walking the precarious path of academia, as Russo's descriptions of the wackiness of academic life are pricelessly spot-on.
Recommended August 2008